Friday, January 27, 2012

New Year's Resolution Update

A ladybug hitched a ride on me this morning. Bike riding along a path, I saw the glossy red bug standing out in relief against my black tights. I was about ready to flick her off when I thought about my New Year's Resolution to do something new every day. I decided my new thing today would be to enjoy the hitchhiking insect, curious about how long she'd hang on.

Every few minutes I glanced down and saw her still there. Each time I looked she was in a slightly different spot. I wondered what it felt like to be her--to be speeding along with me, inching around, gathering information in whatever way ladybugs do: sound? sight? smell? vibration?

Miles later, I had left the remote trail and entered an area with more concrete and cars. I worried she might get squashed if she fell off, or flew off, and couldn't find some flora to land on. So I stopped my bike and put my finger near her. As though understanding my digit was her taxi, she climbed on and I placed her on someone's lawn, near a tree.

This New Year's resolution is assisting me in being more aware, more in the moment. This is because I question what might have been a reflex, an unthinking decision. It's fun to freshen my instincts and insights. Here are a few of the other new-to-me things I've done. Some of them were things I deliberately did differently. Other are things I stumbled across:

* While on a walk, Dave and I discovered a ukulele group playing in a park. There must have been 100 people playing or just hanging out. They were playing "Let it Be" when we arrived, which activated my goosebumps immediately. We hung out and sang with them through a succession of songs, enjoying the great community vibe. Kids played on the periphery, dogs hung out with some of the players, people played mostly ukuleles but some had other instruments. We have since discovered they regularly play Saturday mornings at the beach. It's now our Saturday "church."

* Sometimes my new thing is taking a different route on my walk or bike ride. There's always a little surprise when I do this--an interesting house to see, a different view of the beach, a cute dog or child that seems to be there just for me.

* Sometimes my new thing is saying something nice to someone instead of only thinking it. The other day I as I walked, I enjoyed looking at the lovely, long, full, reddish hair of the three women in front of me who were walking and talking together. When I passed them I turned to them and said, "Are you three related?" They smiled and said yes. I said, "I thought so. You three all have amazing hair." They laughed appreciatively.

* I'm trying new things, like a new brand of yogurt, a new coffee place, a new granola bar. I don't always love what I try, but I'm often glad I did--just for the experience. I'm realizing that when people suggest I try a new restaurant, food or activity instead of thinking, "Hm, will it be as good as [whatever I'm used to]?"--I think "Oh good, that will be my new thing for the day!"

* Dave and I played frisbee on the beach and loved it so much that when we had friends visit we enthusiastically offered that as an activity. We created a new game that involved two frisbees and a tennis ball--so much fun!

* When someone with whom I find it difficult to communicate reacted in a negative way to something I'd done, instead of reacting, justifying, explaining, or otherwise trying to change that person's mind so they'd see me as "good"--I just let it go. I resisted the urge to call ten people who I knew would sympathize with me and find me "right." Okay, I called two--but not ten! And I didn't dwell on details in those conversations. The discussions were quick and light, and helped me move from specifics to a more general space of well-being.

I'm looking forward to seeing what the next few months bring. Will I really be able to pull of doing something new every day for twelve months? Well, I'm not creating any rules for myself. I'm just going to do what's fun and feels right for me.

Here are a few resolutions I found that others made. Each one resonates with me in its own way:

I formed a resolution to never write a word I did not want to write; to think only of my own tastes and ideals... --C. S. Forester

If you asked me for my New Year Resolution, it would be to find out who I am. --Cyril Cusack

I have no way of knowing how people really feel, but the vast majority of those I meet couldn't be nicer. Every once in a while someone barks at me. My New Year's resolution is not to bark back. --Tucker Carlson

Sunday, January 22, 2012


It was dawn as I drove north on the freeway. Because it was early Sunday morning, only a car or two accompanied me on this stretch of interstate that was usually packed with traffic. The Bay Area sky was smeared with a wash of gray and white. I was driving home.

Well, not quite home. I didn’t really have one of those anymore.

For fifteen years my home had been with my wife, and two months into our separation I was staying with my sister. During my fifteen year marriage, my wife and I lived in a number of houses in two different states, but for the past four years we’d resided in a sweet little neighborhood swelling with old trees and young professional couples, mostly childless since the people raising children tended to congregate in the mini-mansions of the more far-flung suburbs.

Our neighborhood had its official title: Shasta Hanchett Park, and its unofficial one: The Gay Zip Code. The latter name was coined in the 1970s because of the proximity of a number of gay bars and a gay community center; and of course, where there are gay activities, gay people reside. Eventually, most of the gay bars disappeared, while the gay community center formerly housed in a small, dank building blossomed into the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Community Center and Women’s Bookstore in a large, bright location down the street. In the spirit of further gentrification, the gay baths were now a “men’s water garden” situated next to a bookstore in an unassuming white building surrounded by luscious ferns and a few palm trees. And on a tall pole out front, an American flag flies.

The residential area of The Gay Zip Code neighborhood meant no one batted an eye when we moved in. Two doors down from us lived a single gay guy, and next to him a gay male couple, and down the street the other direction two women with a new baby, and a few blocks over another gay male couple who threw New Years Eve parties that involved mimosas and the playing of Giant Janga—and around the corner from us, a single lesbian who became our friend.

Then my wife’s lover.

Then my enemy.

This how bad it got: I wasn’t sure if my wife was cheating on me, but I knew something was very, very wrong. She had morphed from over-protective to aloof. She spent most of her evenings drinking scotch and watching Xena, Princess Warrior on her laptop with earbuds in. It was clear to me that she perked up considerably when the single lesbian neighbor was around. I asked her if she had a crush on her, and she denied it—while also, with a stone-solid face, telling me one night she thought she wanted to be single. I cried and cried that night, and she held me in bed, frozen. That had become our way, night after night, for over a week.

One day, I was walking my dogs in the neighborhood, and the single lesbian neighbor was walking on the other side of the street. She crossed the street and bee-lined to me. With tears in her eyes, she wrapped her arms taut with ropy muscles around me and said, “I’ve heard you two have been having some problems. I’m so sorry to hear that. I thought you two were the perfect couple.”

Later, when I fit all the pieces together, I discovered that by the time the neighbor hugged me and professed to feel sorry for the perfect couple, she had already started up with my wife. Maybe she really did feel sorry for the perfect couple. After all, she had insider information that the perfect couple was deeply imperfect.

It would have been less painful had she merely lowered her head and charged at me, impaling me with her rhino-inspired spiky, gelled hair.

Interesting that the one who can cause you the most pain—the one you think is an enemy—might actually be your liberator. I began to think of her that way months later, a kind of devil who was an angel in disguise. As someone who helped free me to live a new life of my choosing, to break free from old, unquestioned patterns that weren't allowing me to thrive. But only two months into the excruciating separation, I wasn’t ready to conceive of things with a shred of positive spin. To make lemonade out of these lemons felt akin to making a shit sandwich out of shit.

But as I drove on the freeway away from the ocean at dawn, over the dark mountain pass to merge onto the freeway further northeast toward my sister’s house, I could feel something dawning in me. A certain lightness creeping through my body paralleled the sunrise, the lightening of the sky.

Two months into my wife's and my breakup, I finally had sex with someone else. And not only someone else, but a man. I'd awakened the next morning in his bed, stunningly not hungover. It had been a long time since I’d slept so soundly. Static shocks of energy coursed through my body. All I wanted was to get into my car and drive. With the contact solution and soap rooted out of his medicine cabinet, I did the best to improve my vision, then I slipped out of the house and into my car.

So there I was, post-coital, driving to my sister’s house at dawn, a sensation of new understanding creeping up with the rising of the sun. And suddenly it hit me. After two months of barely being able to breathe through the excruciating pain of loss … after two months of torturing myself with imagining my wife calling me or showing up at my doorstep to beg my forgiveness … after two months of twisting around in a swirling tornado of grief … after fifteen years of a relationship that ended in this … it struck me like a dart in the bullseye of my soul:

My marriage was over.

She’d left our marriage two months ago.

And last night, I left it too.

Fidelity had been the last uncut string. I’d hung on that string attached to the fabric of our love like a dangling kitten whose intractable claw is tangled in a bedspread.

And that fidelity had been two-pronged: Sex. And men. I’d kept both at arm’s length so long that the arm muscles of my psyche bulged.

For the first time since the breakup, I felt a tinge of relief. A smudge of liberation.

I was driving away from the town where I’d had sex with a virtual stranger. I had been reckless. Impulsive. I didn’t have to feel shame or guilt. My body was mine. My mind was mine. My sexual fantasies were mine.

Like a superhero, I’d broken through a brick and mortar barrier that had taken years to construct. It was 6 a.m. on a Sunday, and no one knew where I was. I wasn’t the focus of the attention of anyone specific. I didn’t belong to anyone. Not an individual, not a category. I was in the most liminal of liminal spaces:

A lesbian, but one who has sex with a man.

A woman who loves sex with men but who has lived as a lesbian for years.

Married, but not. A lesbian, but not. A straight woman, but not.

I had spent a night doing whatever I wanted to do, feeling whatever I wanted to feel. I didn’t have to call anyone. I didn’t have to explain anything to anyone. Not even to myself.

This sensation of the in-between and totally unfettered vibrated through my body as I gripped the steering wheel. I was driving, driving, driving. I pushed my foot onto the accelerator: 65. 70. 75. 80.

I sped by California emerald hills that in a week or two would turn gold overnight. Nature’s alchemy.

I had been living at my sister’s for a few weeks. Her house is a mini mansion on a cul-de-sac in a community rife with sports parks, country clubs, California Distinguished Schools, breast-enhancement surgeries, several big-screen TVs and laptops per house, Wii, Nintendos galore, backyard swimming pools fashioned with authentic-looking “natural” rocky boundaries, cell phones for everyone past infanthood, and air-conditioned supermarkets whose vast array of sparkling produce could feed ten Somalian villages for a year. Like most of her friends, she was housewife and mom to her three children while her husband worked at a technology-related job, raking in bucks big enough to support this lifestyle. It was not how I lived. I was a writer, an artist, an academic, a lesbian, an iconoclast. I lived in a funky neighborhood. I hadn’t thought of it at the time, but I often formed my sense of self in comparison to how others had it wrong. My low-level buzz of judgment about the world my sister lived in probably permeated our relationship for a long time, but we never specifically talked about it. We had the kind of sisterly bonds and tensions that are the hallmark of many sibling relationships.

When my marriage first came crashing down, she invited me to come stay with her and her family for a while. I thanked her but declined. Soon, though, the idea began to appeal to me. I intuited that being around children might do me some good. I was too concerned about the well-being of my young nieces and nephew to mope around fingering a knife or a noose. I felt that being around my sister—someone who’d known me all but the first six years of my life—would be comforting. Besides, I knew she’d like having me around to offer a bit of a buffer in the chaos that is child-rearing. And I was truly grateful for her offer, which would give me not just a house but a home.

When I first moved in, I noticed something about myself. I had held deep in my very being for years a resistance to her vision of life. But suddenly, I was living in her guest room. I had been mown to the ground and didn’t have the vigor it takes to perpetually judge. I just took in her life without internal or external comment. It struck me that the way she chose to live was none of my damn business. And soon, I began to reap pleasures from her world that reached into my injured life and contributed to my healing. It was so very pleasurable to sprawl on the soft wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room, wrestling with my nieces, while my nephew was absorbed in a cartoon that flashed dynamic color and sound into the room. It was pleasurable to open her refrigerator and stare at the abundance, even if I was on the Devastation Diet (meaning I was dropping weight like Oprah on a fast because the knot in my stomach rarely loosened enough for me to swallow much of substance). I loved watching my nieces in a gymnastics meet, their strong little bodies flinging around fearlessly. I loved kissing my nephew goodnight as he sat up with his nightlight on, reading. There was something appealing about the nonchalantly masculine air of my brother-in-law in a white shirt and tie, fresh-faced from a shower, reading the paper distractedly before leaving for work.

My sister encouraged me to enjoy looking good again. She had a lot of great clothes. My judgments about her vast walk-in closet evaporated, along with my general disregard for my appearance.

For years I’d been wearing mostly black, no makeup, and very little jewelry. I’d shunned adornment of the body. It had been years since I’d worn a dress or a skirt. Even though I’ve always looked feminine (or “femme” as a lesbian), ever since I came out as a lesbian, wearing a dress made me feel like I was a drag queen. That feeling had disappeared. It was summer. I bought skirts and sundresses. I bought shorts and flowery blouses in soft fabrics. I bought earrings that bounced against the skin of my neck as I walked. I bought lavender and green and blue eyeshadow, light black mascara, peachy lipgloss. Memories of clothes shopping as a teenager seeped up from my memory, a visceral pentimento of high school: the smell of a leather purse embossed with tiny pink and blue flowers, the feel of tight high-waisted jeans, my favorite lavender blouse that I wore to a dance in the cafeteria, the soft peach-colored tank top I wore with cut-offs over and over one summer.

Memories of summer always involved swimming. I had been a synchronized swimmer for six years, starting in sixth grade. I always loved the water, fashioned myself a kind of mermaid. Swimming in the ocean, lakes, pools; soaking in Jacuzzis and hot springs: I liked it all. But my separation from the world of water had paralleled my dwindling libido during my marriage. My ex wasn’t fond of the water; she was afraid of the ocean, and she didn’t like public Jacuzzis where someone might scrutinize her body…and maybe mine.

So now, I bought a bikini. I hadn’t worn a two-piece bathing suit in almost thirty years. The first time I wore it—bandeau top, splashes of green and blue—I sat next to my sister at the country club on a lounge chair, watching the kids scream with joy as they plunged into the pool.

Their abandon to joy, the freedom in their bodies: It all resonated with me so deeply that at that moment, I realized that I had been assigning the role of Liberator to the wrong person. I was now the Liberator of me.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Being New: My New Year's Resolution

A friend of mine told me that years ago her mother said to her, "Do things in life! You never regret what you did do, only what you didn't do."

I'm sure there are plenty of holes one could poke into that statement (What about that bad stock I bought? What about that person I disappointed? What about that extra drink I took that lead to a horrible hangover?).

But to me, it's the spirit of that statement that's inspiring. My friend's mother (who has since died) was looking back at her healthy, comparatively youthful daughter and telling her that life is to be lived.

Later, I came across this quote by Mark Twain that's in a similar vein:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

That doesn't mean we will always be happy with every exploration or discovery. But it means we are fully living the journey.

Lately my mantra has been, "What good will come out of this?" When I'm not happy with something I turn my mind to that mantra. Recently, for instance, Dave and I were looking to move to Santa Cruz. After a lot of searching, we finally found a place we liked a lot. We measured where our furniture could go. We imagined what it would be like to live in that spot. And then the place was given to someone else. I was so disappointed. But instead of letting myself spiral down into feelings of frustration, I kept thinking, "I wonder what good will come out of this?"

And here's the good that came out of it:

A place that's even better. A redwood cabiny house two blocks from the beach. We are insanely happy to be here. The place we "lost" now feels like a gain.

I will be reminding myself of this mantra, and of Twain's wisdom, a lot this year since my New Year's resolution is to try something new every day. The new thing can be anything. I don't have a list of new things to try. I just have a mindset that I want to be fresh and open to growth.

Roger Von Oech said, "Everyone has a 'risk muscle.' You keep it in shape by trying new things. If you don't, it atrophies. Make a point of using it at least once a day."

I don't imagine myself doing the equivalent of jumping out of an airplane every day (although I wouldn't mind trying that sometime!). Instead, I want to remind myself that every day is a fresh page, every moment a fresh moment.

The new thing I did yesterday, on New Year's Day, was yoga at the beach.

I've done poses on beaches before but never a complete yoga session by myself in the sand. It was a jewel of a day with a cerulean sky. Part of me was excited to try this new thing on such a gorgeous day, yet I began to notice my mind thinking things like, You might not have enough time since your friends are coming in a while; why not just do your usual yoga in the living room. And what if the ground is too uneven and it's hard to keep a pose? And what if your wintery-white skin gets too much sun? And what if people are watching you?

This mind chatter was funny to pay attention to, a reminder that there's often a little resistance to trying new things. Even positive, fun things. It's as though some of our brain cells are gossipy nit-pickers who drink too much coffee and have worry-lines creasing their faces.

But I didn't engage with these nay-sayers as I pulled on my yoga pants and tank top. I treated them like people who had nothing to do with me. I was a person who was going to try my new thing. I trekked the two blocks down the street in my flip-flops, walked almost to the water line, and flowed through my routine while all around me teenagers played Frisbee, little kids dug in the sand, groups laughed and drank beer, and people jogged by with their dogs. I felt like I was one little piece of the "Amazing New Year's Day in Santa Cruz" puzzle. Like I belonged.

Today, the second day of the year, I've already done something new: Dave and I, with our friends Jude and Melissa who were visiting from Marina del Rey, went to breakfast at Linda's Seabreeze Cafe. All of our new neighbors have been raving about this place, which is walking distance from our new pad. I already have a favorite breakfast place in Santa Cruz, and I just didn't believe that this Linda's place could be better. Trying a new restaurant isn't exactly outside my comfort zone. But this experiment is making me aware of how I respond to new things. I felt a little tightness in my breathing when my food came. The omelet didn't look right, with undercooked spinach pouring out the sides--and was there enough cheese?

I realized that when I go to the other restaurant I love, I assume the food will be great. I don't push against anything there. The omelets there looked familiar. This one looked foreign. I dug my fork into it and most splendid taste spread in my mouth. I dipped my next bite in the homemade salsa. Incredible. Also amazing were the thick-cut peppery bacon, the fresh-baked pumpkin pecan muffins and cinnamon rolls, and the coffee. We all plunged into food heaven as we replayed the time we'd spent together, including a sunset last night at the beach, a nice seaside dinner, and then--last night--Jude on his guitar singing to us in front of the fire. His wife Melissa dubbed our house "The Love Nest."

Perhaps as I focus on doing something new every day, I'll discover that I tend to do something new every day anyway. Or maybe I'll discover that some days go by without my awareness that each moment is a blank slate. Maybe I'll learn more than I ever knew about those little pockets of resistance--how they work, how they chatter, how they may or may not be fruitful. Most of all, though, I want to revel in the richness of life. It's all here for us. We just need to dive in.